Americas & Beyond
|Can Bill Clinton Save Obama’s Presidency?|
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December 11, 2010
No comment? No way. You don’t stop Bill Clinton when he’s back at the White House with something to say.
|President Barack Obama, accompanied by former President Bill Clinton, speaks briefly in the briefing room of the White House in Washington, Friday, Dec. 10, 2010, before giving the microphone to Clinton, where he talked about Obama's urging of the Congress to move on the tax compromise he made with Republican congressional leaders. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)|
Well, OK. He and President Barack Obama, two of the most famous men in the world, did need a little help getting a door unlocked first.
But then it was on.
The former president came before surprised reporters to let it be known that he endorsed the tax deal that Obama cut with the Republican Party, even though many Democrats were raising a fuss about it.
That was the news. But it wasn’t the story.
What had the West Wing buzzing was the scene itself: Clinton in his element, like he had never left. And almost like he wasn’t going to leave this time.
For one remarkable half hour, Clinton turned a seemingly slow Friday afternoon into his stage.
He tutored in loving detail about economic theory and nuclear disarmament. He was short on time, yet somehow found some for just one more question. He bit on his lip and spread his arms as he spoke and did all those other familiar gestures.
In a town of scripted rollouts and talking points, the way this event unfolded was refreshingly and remarkably impromptu.
There was to be no press coverage allowed of Obama’s meeting with Clinton. No photos, no questions, not even a written statement about what happened.
That changed when Obama and Clinton wrapped up their private meeting in the Oval Office. Clinton wanted to publicly endorse the tax package. Obama is welcoming all the help he can get.
So the two presidents headed straight for the famous briefing room with no warning.
Except they couldn’t get in.
The door was locked because press staff members were at their holiday party in the Executive Mansion.
Obama and Clinton went back up a hall and found a press aide at her desk. “Do you know how to open up the briefing room?” Obama asked.
Press secretary Robert Gibbs heard the voices outside his office, walked out and saw the two presidents.
“What are you guys up to?” Gibbs recalled saying.
“We’re looking for some reporters,” the presidents told Gibbs.
So the White House press staff scrambled, summoning all available media to the briefing room and setting up a live feed for the networks in minutes. The presidents stood waiting, behind a closed door, until Gibbs stalled long enough to let correspondents take their spots.
Obama introduced Clinton lightly as “the other guy” and recalled how Clinton has overseen heady economic times. Obama warned that he wouldn’t be staying long — another White House Christmas party was waiting, as was his wife, Michelle.
And so it became clear pretty quickly that this was Clinton’s show.
“I feel awkward being here, and now you’re going to leave me all by myself,” Clinton said from the stage of the White House briefing room.
Not that awkward.
Clinton comfortably outlined how the pending package of tax cuts, business incentives and unemployment benefits would boost the economy — even though it included tax help for the wealthy that Obama had to swallow.
“There’s never a perfect bipartisan bill in the eyes of a partisan,” Clinton said. “But I really believe this will be a significant net-plus for the country.”
When he finished his pitch, Clinton played the role of humble guy, saying, “So, for whatever it’s worth, that’s what I think.”
“It’s worth a lot,” Obama insisted.
Clinton was asked what advice he had for Obama, given the context of the times: the current president has to deal with a Republican Party that just won a convincing victory in the midterm election and will soon grab control of the House. Clinton faced the same halfway through his embattled first term in 1994, worked some major deals with the opposing party and rebounded to re-election.
“I have a general rule,” Clinton said, “which is that whatever he asked me about my advice, and whatever I say should become public only if he decides to make it public.” Obama didn’t provide that permission, saying: “I’ve been keeping the First Lady waiting for about half an hour, so I’m going to take off.”
The current president left it to Gibbs to decide when Clinton’s questioning would be cut off.
Yeah, right …
Gibbs couldn’t cut off Clinton, and neither could Clinton’s own aide. Only Clinton could stop Clinton.
The former president spoke about credit markets and Haiti and principled compromise and structural deficits.
Clinton was asked if he was happier being in the White House as a guest speaker than as president.
“Oh, I had quite a good time governing,” a smiling Clinton said. “I am happy to be here, I suppose, when the bullets that are fired are unlikely to hit me.”
When it was over, Obama aides and others in the room wore the look of those who couldn’t believe the glimpse of political Americana they just saw.
“It was,” said Gibbs, “as spontaneous as it could be.”